Califone + The Bitter Tears

Jennifer Kelly
The Bitter Tears

The second I see a man wearing a satin wedding gown hiked up over a pair of blue jeans, it's pretty clear what kind of night this is going to be.


Califone + The Bitter Tears

City: Northampton, MA
Venue: Iron Horse
Date: 2007-06-05

I know what kind of night it’s going to be when I run into Alan Scalpone, lead singer for the Bitter Tears, in the line for the bathroom before the show. He’s wearing a satin wedding gown hiked up over a pair of blue jeans, and his face bares traces of white-face make-up. “Are they both taken?” he asks, making a final adjustment to his costume -- appropriate for either the men’s or the women’s room -- as the sound of trombones filters in from the green room. Thanks to this encounter, I’m more or less ready when Scalpone wanders on stage clutching a thrift-store acoustic guitar that appears to have been whitewashed, and begins singing plaintively in high falsetto. The other four members join him casually: the string bass player’s hair done up in a Peebles coif; the trombone/slide whistler sporting a Chicago Bulls singlet and not-quite-zipped cut-offs; the keyboardist costumed as Sherlock Holmes in deerskin cap and pipe; and the drummer glittery in gold lamé. The band’s first song, “Grieving,” sets a manic tone: ringing at first with sentiment and heart-ache, it builds quickly with big, brassy change-ups. There’s a moment in the song where the trombone player sets down his horn and takes up two slide whistles, playing them simultaneously in ghostly counterpoint. It’s beautiful. It’s a little mad. It’s the Bitter Tears going all out in a small-town club where, chances are, no one will understand. The band’s sound is all over the map, with damaged country laments leading directly into Dixieland stomps, roadhouse blues tromping on a maniacal Western two-step. You could draw the usual comparisons -- Waits, Reid Paley, and Man Man spring to mind -- but such a reductive approach misses what’s unique about the band... which is pretty much everything they do. For example, there's a song that, according the front man, is “about impregnating fruit” that contains the repeated, nearly hysterical line, “Was it you who got my vanilla bean pregnant?” During the piece, the singer takes it into his head to climb the stairs in the back of the club, holding his long wedding skirt knee-high as he flounces up the step. All the way up, he continues to sing, and the band continue to vamp, but the audience seems to lose the thread. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! I’m up here,” he belts from on high -- it could be part of the song, or a special performance thought up on the spot. The Bitter Tears stage show is freakish in a way that’s fun to write about, but it wouldn’t work if the band’s members weren’t such skilled musicians. They remind me of Bobby Conn, in a way -- the insane theatricality layered onto real musical prowess. The finale, “Murdered at the Bar,” finds a vein of raunchy, old-jazz groove, like a return trip from a New Orleans cemetery, except, on this ride, the corpse is singing. The Bitter Tears have put together a fantastic, over-the-top live show that’s as carefully staged as Kabuki theater but still manages to feel loose and funny. It is much better than the downloads I’ll find the next day at the band’s website (, but this only means that they are improving so fast that they haven't had time to record.


You might think that Califone -- seasoned elder statesmen, serious students of ethnic music, jazz, and blues -- would raise the tone at the set break, but it’s simply not that kind of evening. Tim Rutili squints out at the stage, and, almost immediately, things take an absurdist tone. He begins by apologizing for some sort of “negative” remark he made the last time he played the Iron Horse, something, it sounds like, to do with the food. He vows to be more positive this time. You don't really know whether he’s serious at first, and it’s safe to say that a few members of the audience may never quite catch on to the sarcasm. And yet, from here on in, every time the music stops, Rutili finds something ridiculous to be positive about... from hitting small animals in his car (“And they look at me like, hey, I’m done. It’s okay.”), to masturbating with cuts of meat (he stops dead in the middle of a monologue about a kid who does this to grin delightedly and say, “Did you know girls masturbate, too?”). At one point, he veers dangerously towards negativity, observing that Northampton is full of "fucking hippies" (true enough, by the way), but then amends himself, "which I love." These observations become ever wilder and more improbable as the evening goes on. (I don't really think that Rutili's car has one, let alone two, "Mean People Suck" bumper stickers, as he claims.) In between short positivist tirades, Califone plays its unique brand of percussion-laced, blues- and country-influenced folk tunes -- always just a little smarter and more self-aware than it seems on the surface. Rutili is touring with an unusually full band: Joe Adamik, the kit drummer, is locked in communion with the alternate percussion sounds of Ben Masserella, who has brought a drawer full of instruments that includes Tibetan chimes, wooden xylophones, shakers, bells, brushes, and cymbals. On Rutili’s right, Jim Becker switches between fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and Rutili himself plays keyboards, guitar, and synthesizer. As if that weren’t enough, three of the Bitter Tears join in on about half the songs, scrubbed of make-up, conventionally dressed, and bearing a trumpet and two trombones. Califone uses the added brass in a variety of ways, sometimes approaching a free-jazz-ish fever pitch, and at other points slipping good-time flourishes into more predictable, pop-structured compositions. As a result, even the most familiar songs from Califone’s wonderful Roots & Crowns sound denser, more rock, and hardly recognizable. “The Orchids” has ditched its folk purity for a faster, more driving beat; it’s a third over before I recognize it. “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” sneaks up on me, too, luminous but utterly different from what I expect. And “Pink and Sour,” which closes out the set, is pure sensory overload -- the two drummers lock like gears around its clattering beat, the brass swooping in for dizzy accents, Rutili and Becker's voices keening in dream-like soul falsetto. It is all so very good, so hard to pull off, and so adventurous that you’d excuse the men of Califone for taking themselves a little too seriously. But you don’t have to. When it ends, Rutili takes the mic again and grins lopsidedly, still relentlessly, unconvincingly positive. “Thank you,” he says in a passable imitation of Las Vegas smarminess. “I hope you all felt the love tonight... because you are... loved.”

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.